Rated W: This New Ratings System Tests Films on How They Depict Women

You can't manage what you don't measure.

(Photo: Katrin Thomas/Getty Images)

Melissa Rayworth is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has also written for the Associated Press, Salon and Babble.

Amid our collective amusement at John Travolta calling Idina Menzel "Adele Dazeem" at the Oscars, a tiny victory for women in film may have gotten lost.

The winner of the award for best animated feature, Frozen, centers on the actions (not simply reactions) of two strong, determined sisters. The film plays with audience expectations (spoiler alert!) by making the "act of true love" at the end not the obligatory climactic kiss between a hero and his love interest but a courageous act of selflessness on the part of one sister to save the other. 

"Little by little, things are getting better," says David Resha, who teaches film at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala. But "we've known about these problems for a long time, and they should have been solved a long time ago."

Most American films still consist mainly of strong, dynamic male characters and only a handful of female characters—many of whom are focused on looking pretty and finding a boyfriend. One moment of cinematic sisterhood surely doesn't outweigh the avalanche of movie moments in which female characters are eye candy, window dressing, or absent altogether. 

That's why the Representation Project has created a new test that grades movies on how they're representing women and dealing with stereotypes that are subtly threaded through so many films. It's called the Representation Test—20 questions that you can apply to any film to see where it falls on the scale of representing society fully and accurately. 

It builds on the Bechdel test—in fact, question No. 7 is the Bechdel test: Does the movie have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man? That profoundly simple analytical tool was dreamed up by cartoonist Allison Bechdel in 1985—and ridiculously few movies pass. 

"We were inspired by the Bechdel test and how in Sweden they made the effort to integrate that into actual ratings at the movie theaters," says Imran Siddiquee, director of communications at the Representation Project. "We would love to see something like that take off in the United States." 

One key to this new media literacy tool is that the test doesn't just ask about the presence of women. It also inquires whether the film includes one or more women of color, in speaking roles, who are not reduced to racial stereotypes. And does the film represent women as more than "objects for the male gaze"? Does it include women in speaking roles with diverse body types and female characters over the age of 45?

The test is being used as part of a curriculum that the Representation Project has shared with thousands of schools around the country since 2011, which draws on the issues explored in Jennifer Siebel Newsom's documentary film Miss Representation

"It's an educational tool," Siddiquee says, "a framework to have these conversations" in classrooms and elsewhere about stereotypes in movies. If enough people begin having these "small conversations, small discussions about inequality," he says, change will come.  

The group is also reaching out directly to screenwriters and directors. Change has "got to be coming from individuals, from consumers," he says, "but also we want the folks who have the decision-making power" to consider the conscious and subconscious ways they may be furthering stereotypes. 

Hollywood's executives have been silent on the subject, despite being called out by Cate Blanchett in her Oscar acceptance speech and being addressed directly in the Los Angeles Times the day before.

The Representation Project posted an open letter to eight major film industry executives (six men and two women, by the way) as a full-page ad in Saturday's paper, asking them to consider that while "women and girls comprise 52 percent of moviegoers and 50 percent of all ticket buyers in the United States," they were represented as "just 15 percent of protagonists in the top films of last year and only 30 percent of characters who spoke."

The ad drew a healthy response via e-mail from supporters of the Representation Project and its new test.

So far, though, not a word from executives. 

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